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[Article] Are you a Manager or a Leader?

Jimi Wikman

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It seems that the terms "leader" and "manager" are used a bit casually when you look at role descriptions and titles. The thing though is that they are not interchangeable, but actually have a very distinct definition in my opinion. Leaders lead and managers manage after all and those are two different skill sets.

Are you a project manager or project leader? That is a question almost no one ever ask, because in most people's mind they are the same. I would argue however that it is not because for me there is a very big difference between someone who lead and someone who manage.


A manager manage.

"Management (or managing) is the administration of an organization, whether it is a business, a not-for-profit organization, or government body. Management includes the activities of setting the strategy of an organization and coordinating the efforts of its employees (or of volunteers) to accomplish its objectives through the application of available resources, such as financial, natural, technological, and human resources. The term "management" may also refer to those people who manage an organization. "
- Wikipedia

Someone with the title manager is often someone who do not directly interact with the people they manage. They handle things like finances, stakeholder communication and reporting. In many ways managers work upwards to satisfy the need of those higher up in the hierarchy. People are often handled indirectly by managers and focus is on delivery and the promise given to those higher up in the organization.

Henri Fayol have a definition I think is quite accurate:  "to manage is to forecast and to plan, to organize, to command, to co-ordinate and to control."

Managers need strong skills in strategic planning and structured organization. As they often do not directly work with the people they manage they don't need strong charisma or empathic abilities. That is not to say that managers have these abilities, just that it is less required than for leaders.

Managers focus on the promise of delivery.


A leader lead.

"A leader is one who influences or leads others. 

Leadership is both a research area and a practical skill encompassing the ability of an individual or organization to "lead" or guide other individuals, teams, or entire organizations. Specialist literature debates various viewpoints, contrasting Eastern and Western approaches to leadership, and also (within the West) United States versus European approaches. U.S. academic environments define leadership as "a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task"

Someone with the title leader is someone who directly interact with the people they lead. These are people who manage day to day activities within the team to ensure that the team are doing well. Leaders work downwards towards the team they lead and will shield them from the demands from those higher up in the organization.

Unlike management, leadership cannot be taught, although it may be learned and enhanced through coaching or mentoring. Erika Andersen, author of "Leading So People Will Follow," says, like most things – leadership capability falls along a bell curve. So the fact is that most folks who start out with a modicum of innate leadership capability can actually become very good, even great leaders.

We can define a leader and someone who possess a degree of leadership. Leadership can be defined as "The act of inspiring subordinants to perform and engage in achieving a goal."

In order to have others follow you, you need leadership skills and the respect of those that you lead. Empathy is a crucial skill as is charisma and compassion. As a leader you are also responsible for the promise of delivery and need organizational and strategic planning skills. It is just less required than for a manager.

Leaders focus on the promise to take care of the people.


Blurred lines between manager and leader.
It may seem that I make a hard distinction between managers and leaders. I know that the lines between the two are not as cut and dry as this article may suggest. Many managers are also great leaders and many leaders are great managers. The point I try to make is that the titles are not interchangeable, but they actually have a definition.

I think this is important because as long as we mix these roles when describing what role we actually are looking for, then we will continue to get the wrong skill set. This is even more confusing when adding a role definition based on an ability such as leadership.

Are you a sword or a shield?
This is a question I often ask when someone tell me they are a manager or a leader of some sort. Being a sword means that you will sacrifice the people to fulfill the promise of delivery. A shield on the other hand will protect the people even if it means sacrificing the promise of delivery.

Both of these types of managers are needed in an organization and you can often see the correlation when an organization are over representing one of the two. To many swords lead to a detached workforce and health issues among the teams. To many shields lead to difficulties to grow and economical issues.

In my perfect world we have a mix of both types throughout the organization. A higher focus on swords are at the top of the hierarchy and a higher focus on the shields are at the bottom. If we combine this with good communication and an organization model that focus work, then you have a perfect work environment.

So...are you a manager, or a leader?

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